by F.X. Toole
Ecco, 366 pages; $25.95
Even the luckiest
boxer risks getting his brains scrambled, while his unlucky brethren can make
Job seem like a preliminary boy. And yet this savage enterprise, gnawed to the
bone by flesh peddlers, has always been a haven for dreamers, for fighters and
corner men who endure the ugliness to give us courage, grace, humanity. F.X.
Toole was a member of that noble tribe, closing cuts for the wounded for the
last 20 years of his life. But he was a writer too--oh, was he a writer--and he
opened his arms widest to boxing's dreamers.
Two of them are
the lifeblood of his posthumously published novel, Pound for Pound, and if it
seems that Toole stacked the obstacles before them impossibly high, it may be
because he cared for them at such a gut level. Dan Cooley is a timeworn Los
Angeles trainer with a bad eye, a worse heart and a family decimated by disease
and tragedy. The only kin he can reach out and touch is an 11-year-old grandson
with a gift for fighting. Then an accident snatches the boy's life away too,
sending Dan into a tailspin that veers from homicidal to suicidal.
His salvation is
someone he'll be a long time in meeting, a teenage welterweight named Chicky
Garza, who is taking his own lumps as he tries to fight his way out of San
Antonio. His grandfather, an ex-boxer deep in the clutches of morphine,
entrusts Chicky to a pair of rat-bastard brothers who scam Chicky out of his
shot at the U.S. Olympic trials. So the young fighter heads for L.A., where his
first professional manager is an even lower form of vermin who steers him into
three quick mismatch losses. Small wonder that Chicky becomes a savior who
needs saving himself.
Dickensian touch to all this, but there's also a sense of the immense pressure
Toole labored under. He wrote Pound for Pound not knowing if he could finish it
before he died. Of course, the fight guy who was born Jerry Boyd had pulled off
the impossible before, publishing his first short story under the pen name
Toole when he was 69. A year later his story collection, Rope Burns, arrived to
take its place among the greatest boxing fiction ever. But in 2002, Toole went
to his grave at 72, too soon to see Clint Eastwood turn two of his stories into
the Oscar-winning movie Million Dollar Baby. And Pound for Pound remained a
900-page manuscript that begged for more work.
agent and a freelance editor stepped in and "shaped" it, to borrow a
verb from crime novelist James Ellroy's introduction. The drastically shortened
result, alas, doesn't belong on the same shelf with Leonard Gardner's Fat City
and W.C. Heinz's The Professional, the gold standard of boxing novels. There is
none of the precision or surprise that made Toole's short stories a revelation.
Instead, Pound for Pound is burdened with a predictable plot and some shaky
logic. And when Dan and Chicky finally do meet, only 84 pages remain, space
enough to do no more than tie things up with an inelegant bow.
Such haste can be
blamed on the forces that snatched Toole away too soon. Those same forces,
however, couldn't prevent him from creating characters worthy of remembering
long after their story is forgotten. They inhabit a world no writer ever
understood better, and speak a language as real as a boxer's bruises. As an
old-timer who saw Dan fight says, "He did it so pretty you wished you had
the same daddy." Both Dan and Chicky are riding life's roller coaster,
Chicky worrying that failure is his destiny, Dan trying to outlast an uncertain
heart. They are prime candidates for surrender, just as the man who created
them was. But there is no quit in them, nor was there in Toole. To the end, he
wrote with a fighter's heart.